Dr. Ron Woodard, assistant superintendent of Maury County schools. Photo by Clint Confehr

By Clint Confehr

COLUMBIA, TN — Working conditions for Maury County Public Schools’ teachers include problems faced in other school systems. Here, someone’s offered to enforce the law.

Teachers must have a “duty free planning period,” according to discussion in Horace Porter School during collaborative conferencing between representatives of the system and education association.

However, principals ask teachers to do other work when they’re writing class lessons. They’re told, “‘Oh, that’s just your planning time. Please take care of this,’” discussion revealed.

State law and school board policies say teachers must have 150 minutes of uninterrupted planning time, Dr. Ron Woodard, assistant superintendent of Maury County schools, said during collaborative conferencing recently.

“If that is not happening, it can be addressed administratively,” Dr. Woodard said among nearly 25 educators, county officials and others March 13.

Referring to principals and administrators at schools, Woodard added, “They know I won’t shy away from the hard conversations.” To emphasize that, he explained he’s married to a Franklin Special School District teacher, and their conversations include such work issues.

Work rules, pay issues and various other aspects of the relationship between professional educators and school system management were negotiated in Tennessee during several decades after state lawmakers authorized county education associations to operate as employee bargaining agents to hammer-out work contracts.

After a power shift in the General Assembly, county education associations were stripped of their authority as bargaining agents. However, the succeeding state law describes a method for employees and management to discuss working conditions. Collaborative conferencing is similar to contract negotiations in that work conditions are a chief topic of discussion.

The goal of collaborative conferencing is to establish a memorandum of understanding on the rights and responsibilities of employees and managers. Bargaining agents negotiate work contracts.

To engage in collaborative conferencing, a county school board must vote to use the system. Maury County’s board did so, but didn’t proceed to the talks in accordance with the law. The Maury County Education Association sued the system in Chancery Court. The resulting court ruling describes steps to be taken to start and conduct collaborative conferencing.

Conferencing was conducted: Feb. 6 and 20; March 13; and was set for April 10.

A “culture of fear” was mentioned during conferencing last month. The meetings are open to the public. Teachers without tenure may be timid, but those with years of service and membership in the Tennessee Education Association are usually aware that it’s hard to fire a tenured professional.

Other concerns include: unnecessarily long faculty meetings; the ability to eat lunch without work responsibilities; an adequate supply of substitutes so teachers don’t have to manage two classrooms at the same time; and freedom from retaliation — “being seen as insubordinate” — when an employee can’t attend after school-day events including science fairs, band concerts, school team games, or similar events. Parent-teacher conferences were described as part of the job.

Clint Confehr

Clint Confehr — an American journalist since 1972 — first wrote for The Tennessee Tribune in 1999. His news writing and photography in South Central Tennessee and the Nashville Metropolitan Statistical...